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Panel Vote Was 12-0 to Cite Wright : Solid Democratic Support for 2 of 3 Charges Reported

Times Staff Writer

The House Ethics Committee voted 12 to 0 across party lines to support a charge that Speaker Jim Wright failed to report his wife’s $18,000 annual salary as a gift in violation of House rules, an informed source said Sunday.

Four of the six Democrats on the panel joined with the six Republican members to approve another charge that Wright evaded the limit on outside income by transforming speech fees into book royalty payments, the source added.

The indication of solid Democratic support for two of the three main charges against the Speaker came after earlier indications that only two members of Wright’s party had supported the allegations against him.

Gifts From Developer

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It was reported last week that two Democrats--Chester G. Atkins (D-Mass.) and Bernard J. Dwyer (D-N.J.)--had joined with the six Republicans of the committee in finding that Wright had sought legislation benefiting his friend and business partner, George A. Mallick Jr., at the time that Betty Wright was employed by a company founded by Mallick and the Speaker.

The committee concluded that Betty Wright’s salary and benefits--including a condominium and a Cadillac--may have constituted unlawful gifts from a person with direct interest in legislation.

Wright, trying to rally Democratic backing on the eve of the committee’s report today, charged that the panel was stretching the House code of ethics in his case.

But the solid bipartisan majorities against him--and in favor of charges recommended by committee special counsel Richard J. Phelan--indicated that his troubles may be more serious than at first believed.

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456-Page Report

The announcement of the committee’s decision, plus release of Phelan’s 456-page report on his 10-month investigation of Wright’s financial affairs, could cost the Speaker his leadership post.

On Sunday, Wright asked the committee to allow him to appear personally today to reply to the charges, but the ranking Republican member of the panel said the request would be rejected.

Wright’s timing was flatly rejected by Rep. John T. Myers (R-Ind.), ranking minority member of the committee, which is evenly divided between the two parties. Wright outlined his proposal in letters sent Sunday morning to Myers and Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles), the committee’s chairman.

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“There is no way he will be able to appear tomorrow. . . . We will expedite it and try to be courteous to the Speaker. We’ll help him as much as we can, but we can’t do it this week,” Myers said during a telephone interview Sunday.

Wright, in his letter to the congressmen, requested “the earliest possible opportunity to appear before the committee to answer specifically any statement of alleged violations.”

“I am prepared to appear as early as Monday afternoon, but certainly the committee should be able to schedule a hearing within seven days,” the letter said. When asked if he considered Wright’s proposal a public relations ploy, Myers replied: “Sure.”

Myers said that Wright has been negotiating with the committee on the matter through his attorney, “but we still have to follow the rules.” Those rules give a member 21 days to respond to charges once they are officially filed.

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Need to Read Report

While the committee will try to shorten that period, Myers said, members of the panel will require time to familiarize themselves with Phelan’s report, which is scheduled for release today along with the allegations against Wright. Myers said that the House is scheduled to recess for the week on Wednesday, leaving little time to take the matter up.

Wright said he is ready to waive “time-consuming procedures” that are available to him under the rules because “I believe it is in the best interests of the House, as well as the country, to resolve this matter as quickly as possible.”

He said that he hopes the committee will act promptly after his appearance to determine whether the evidence in the case meets the “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard required by the rules of the committee, which is formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Wright repeated previous denials that he had knowingly violated any of those rules.

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$100,000 in Benefits

The case against the Speaker, already indicated in multiple leaks from his foes and from Wright himself, deals with alleged violations of House rules on accepting gifts from those with an interest in legislation. Many of the questions turn on charges that he and his wife accepted about $100,000 in benefits from Mallick, a Ft. Worth developer who made the car and a condominium available to the Wrights and hired Betty Wright for $18,000 a year.

Also at issue are charges that special-interest groups were encouraged to buy large consignments of Wright’s book, “Reflections of a Public Man,” rather than pay him speaking fees. Such fees are subject to annual limits, but there are no limits on book royalties.

Staff writer Don Irwin contributed to this story.

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